To suggest that the United States policies in Yemen were a “failure” is an understatement. It implies that the US had at least attempted to succeed. But “succeed” at what? The US drone war had no other objective aside from celebrating the elimination of whomever the US hit list designates as a terrorist.
But now that a civil and regional war has broken out and the degree of US influence in Yemen has been exposed as limited, the war on al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) – in the larger context of political, tribal and regional rivalry – is insignificant.
The failure – if we are to utilise the term – is of course, not just American, but involves most US allies who have ignored Yemen’s protracted misery: poverty, corruption, violence and the lack of any political horizon, until the country finally imploded. When the Houthis took over Sanaa last September, a foolish act by any account, only then did the situation in Yemen became urgent enough for intervention.
So very conveniently, the Zaidi Houthi rebels of the north became defined as “Shia rebels,” before morphing into “Iran-backed Shia rebels”. That alone was enough to draw a line in the sand, serving as a rally cry for “Sunni” Muslim countries to form an unprecedented coalition to restore the “legitimate government” of President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, whose “legitimacy” is questionable at best.
For a long time, the US seemed invulnerable to what even Yemen analysts admit is an intricate subject to understand, let alone attempt to explain in a straightforward manner. The US drones buzzed overhead independent from all of this. They “took out” whomever they suspected was an al-Qaeda affiliate. President Barack Obama was even revealed to have approved of a “secret kill list,” and agreed to consider counting casualties in such a way that “essentially designates all military-aged males in a strike zone as military combatants”.
In fact, a timeline of events that have befallen poverty-stricken Yemen shows a strange phenomenon where US involvement in that country operates parallel to but separate from all other horrific events, violence, suffering and politicking. Sure, the US’s shadowy war had augmented the suffering, demoralised the nation and undermined whatever political process was underway – especially after the Yemeni version of the Arab Spring early 2011. However, the US paid little heed to Yemen’s fragile alliances and the fact that the country was on a fast track towards civil war, even worse a regional war that was direct or by proxy.
That responsibility of mending broken Yemen was left to the United Nations. But with regional rivalry between Iran and Gulf countries at its peak, UN envoys had little margin for meaningful negotiations. Despite repeated assurances that the “national dialogue” was on its way to repair Yemen’s body politic, it all failed.
Yet the US continued with its war unabated, arming whomever it deemed an ally, exploiting regional differences, and promoting the power of al-Qaeda in ways that far exceeded their presence on the ground. It saw Yemen as a convenient “war on terror”. This was enough to give Obama the tough persona that American voters love about their presidents, without the high risk of military quagmires like the ones that his predecessor, George W Bush, created in Iraq and Afghanistan.
It was hardly that simple. Even a “clean” drone war activated from faraway places is rarely enough to guarantee results.
Set aside the moral responsibility of torturing an already wounded nation, the US seemed to lack understanding of how its actions frustrate and contribute to regional conflicts. Its exacerbation of Iraq’s sectarian fault lines following the 2003 invasion, leading to a massive civil war a few years later, was a lesson unlearnt. That “divide and conquer” backfired badly. An empowered and brutal US-supported Shia government that took revenge on Sunni tribes and communities across Iraq following the war, met their match with the rise of the barbarous so-called “Islamic State (IS),” turning Iraq, and of course, Syria, into a savage battleground.
Gone are the days in which US policies alone dictated the course of history in the Middle East. The Iraq war was catastrophic at so many levels, leading newly elected President Obama to relegate direct military intervention as a way to achieve strategic and political ends.
The Obama doctrine was an attempt at combining use of US military influence – while scaling down on direct military intervention – on the one hand, and regional and international allies on the other, to sustain US ascendency in the region as much as possible. What seemed like a relative success in Libya with the ousting of Muammar Gaddafi was too difficult to duplicate in Syria. The stakes there were simply too high. Regional rivals like Iran, and international rivals like Russia, were too resistant to any open attempt at overthrowing the Bashar al-Assad regime. And with the rise of IS, Assad had suddenly been re-cast into a different role, that of a buffer, although he is still designated as an enemy. John Kerry’s statement about willingness to engage Assad signalled a massive turnabout in US policies there.
Now with a preliminary nuclear deal agreed upon by Iran, the US and its allies, chances are that the US will carry on with its sabre-rattling – as Iran will surely do as well – and it is unlikely that Obama will enact any major shift in his regional policies. On the contrary, his administration is likely to retreat, further hiding behind its allies to achieve whatever muddled objectives it may have in this chaotic moment.
For Iran, and to a lesser degree, the US, Yemen is perhaps suitable ground for a token war. In “Why it may suit Iran to let the Saudis win in Yemen,” Daniel Levy and Julien Barnes-Dacey argue that the current rivalry in Yemen has at its heart the nuclear talks between Iran and the West. Iran never “won” Yemen to lose it anyway, and supporting the Houthis can only push Iran’s Arab enemies into a protracted conflict from which there is no easy escape.
Yet while indirect military involvement is consistent with the Obama war doctrine, the US could still stand to lose. Sure, Obama can counter his Republican critics – stalwart supporters of Israel, thus strongly opposed to any Iran deal – by military engaging Iran from a distance in a useless Yemen war. That said, if the US allies fail to achieve a quick victory, which is unlikely anyway, the US would have one of two options: disown its allies (who are already infuriated by the US double speak on Iran) or get pulled into an unwinnable war that cannot be lost.
A loss for the Houthis would certainly bloody Iran’s nose, but not much more than that. It is the Arabs and their regional allies that risk a major loss due to their direct involvement. And since defeat “is not an option” the Yemen quagmire is likely to prove more lengthy and lethal. In the first two weeks of war, over 500 Yemenis have been reportedly killed. This is just the beginning.
Of course, there is a way out. Iran and its Arab rivals must understand that political scenarios where one cancels out the other is impossible to achieve. Syria has been a paramount, although tragic example.
They must also keep in mind that the US – which is playing both parties against one another – is only interested in the region for economic and strategic reasons. Regardless of the hyped sectarian divides, Shia, Sunnis, and numerous other groups have crisscrossed, overlapped and co-existed in the Middle East for centuries. No war, no matter how destructive, and no alliance, no matter how large, can possibly change that historical inevitability.
Iran and Saudi Arabia, which understandably lack trust of one another, should not seek regional ambitions at the expense of their neighbours. They cannot selectively support various Shia and Sunni groups, promoting a frightening vision of a future dominated by Shia or Sunni Islam, while protesting the other party’s sectarianism.
While the tragic situation in Yemen has been a ground for lamentation at the cross-the-board-failure, it might also present an opportunity at political compromise, starting in Yemen, but extending elsewhere.